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The gift of reading

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The Guatemala Literacy Project is working to reverse the country’s low literacy rates and keep children in school

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When Rotary International President Jennifer Jones visited a primary school in a farming village in Guatemala’s highlands and asked who wants to become the country’s president, the students’ hands shot into the air. Before a Rotary-supported reading program began in the village of Chajalajyá, students would often drop out after a couple years of school. “Reading will change our society,” Principal Vilma Nizeth Moreira told Jones during an April visit to the school. “These are powerful tools we are giving children to eradicate ignorance.” Schools often teach in Spanish, but about 25 languages are spoken in the country, and there are few written materials in local languages.

The Guatemala Literacy Project has worked for 25 years to improve reading rates. In 1997, Joe and Jeff Berninger, brothers from Ohio, were volunteering as English teachers at a Guatemalan school that had no books. The two launched a project to solve that. The day the books arrived, there was a huge celebration, and a Rotarian dentist volunteering nearby heard the noise and asked what was going on. “He said this would be a perfect project for Rotary,” says Joe Berninger, now a member of the Rotary Club of Pathways, Ohio, which coordinates the project.

Vilma Nizeth Moreira, the principal of a primary school in the village of Chajalajyá, has seen firsthand the students’ success with help from the Guatemala Literacy Project.

Rotarians in Guatemala helped develop reading programs in other schools, and since 1997, The Rotary Foundation has helped fund the literacy project with 48 grants totaling $6.5 million. Nearly 800 clubs in 90 districts have participated, making it one of the largest grassroots, multiclub, multidistrict projects in Rotary. The initiative also receives support from the U.S. nonprofit Cooperative for Education. "There's a lot of push and drive and enthusiasm that comes from Rotary," says Howard Lobb, Cooperative for Education's director of partner development, also a member of the Ohio Pathways club.

From that initial textbook project, the work has grown to include computer labs, Rise Youth Development Program scholarships, and the Spark Reading Program to provide books and teacher training.

Students pay a fee to rent textbooks, and the money is put into a revolving fund, used to replace the books after five years. "Rotary's donation acts as a seed investment, and when textbooks wear out or become outdated, the school ... can replace their textbooks with their own savings without having to ask Rotary for more funding," Lobb says.

Moreira, the village school principal, recalls a former student who stayed in classes thanks to a Rise scholarship and is headed to university. The girl read a book about Nobel Prize winner and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai that Moreira lent her. "Now this girl wants to be as big as Malala," she says. "It changed her life."

  1. When Blanca Mactzul was a little girl, she would eye her grandfather’s magazines, longing to read one. Her first book, Teo El Conejo, about a rabbit, was one that she swiped from him. “I used to take my book everywhere,” she recalls, “even to sleep.” Since 2020, Mactzul has been a Spark Reading teacher at the elementary school in Chajalajyá, where she sees the power of books, provided through the Guatemala Literacy Project, to motivate her students to become more invested in their learning. “I was so happy to have so many materials to work with,” she says. “In other schools, we don’t have those resources.”

  2. Rosa Acabal (right) was sure she’d have to drop out after she finished elementary school. Her mother, Leonicia Solís, had only finished third grade. But the principal of her school told her about the Rise scholarships, and today, Acabal is in 10th grade studying tourism. She has received strong support from her mother, who raised her and her four siblings alone and built their home with her own hands. Acabal’s goal is to finish high school and find a job so her mother can stop working in the fields.

  3. Before school, Yurleny Teleguario sells street food such as pupusas and dobladas with her mother, María Magzul. Then, she heads to class, where she’s in 10th grade studying bookkeeping. “I dream of becoming a great entrepreneur,” she says. Teleguario had to drop out of school when her father died and her mother got sick; her family lost their home. She heard about the Rise scholarships from a cousin. Her goal is to make enough money to buy her mom a new house. “Education is very important to me,” she says, “because it gives us the opportunity to flourish and progress in life.”

  4. José Luis Chancho (left) and his family cultivated vegetables for export. “I knew that right after sixth grade, I would join my dad working on the field,” he says. “That’s what my siblings did. None of them kept studying.” But when he heard about the Rise scholarship, Chancho redoubled his efforts in his classes, earning outstanding grades and a spot in the program. Chancho graduated from high school in 2015 and works as an accountant for a pharmaceutical company, using the money to put himself through college. When the pandemic started, he called Cooperative for Education and offered to make math and accounting videos for current students. “If it weren’t for the program, I might have taken a very wrong path,” he says.

  5. Jáckelyn Xiquín Lúc and her twin sister, Joselyn, studied at a middle school supported by the Guatemala Literacy Project with a computer lab and textbooks. But the family didn’t have enough money for them to continue their studies, so the sisters dropped out, earning bits of money from an uncle who is a farmer and learning from their mother to weave huipiles, traditional garments. They returned to school when Rise scholarships were introduced in their village three years later, and in 2019, both earned Microsoft Office Specialist certifications in Excel. “Thanks to the opportunity given to me by CoEd [Cooperative for Education], I am where I am today. I am working at a job I like,” Xiquín says. “Education helps you to look for better opportunities.”

  6. Joe Berninger, Howard Lobb, and RI President Jennifer Jones visit with former scholarship student Rosa Ixcoy (holding baby) and her family. Jones sponsored Ixcoy through the Guatemala Literacy Project.

Rotary International regional communication specialist Briscila Greene contributed to this story.

This story originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

Rotary is helping improve literacy worldwide through the Basic Education and Literacy Rotary Action Group.